- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2002

It has been one week since a tornado devastated Southern Maryland, killing three persons and wiping out downtown La Plata, the Charles County seat.
The April 28 storm brought out the best in local television news. Every major station dispatched several news crews to La Plata, and they delivered sobering images of the tragedy to TV sets around Washington.
But slowly, the story has faded from TV. By Thursday, a stabbing in Alexandria, the Gallaudet University murder trial and the first anniversary of Chandra Levy's disappearance had replaced the La Plata tornado as the top stories on most local newscasts.
It is a common complaint in Washington's outer suburbs: The local TV stations only send reporters to counties like Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's when a sensational crime or a big tragedy occurs.
I should know. I grew up in Charles County, and my first job as a reporter was for the hometown newspaper, the twice-weekly Maryland Independent. While working there in the late 1990s, I rarely ran into TV reporters from Washington on my beat.
Stories from the region's biggest jurisdictions primarily the District and Montgomery and Fairfax counties dominate local TV news, leaving viewers in the outer suburbs feeling shortchanged.
"I was shocked to see the media come down here in full force [to cover the tornado]. We never find ourselves on the news," says Kathy Levanduski, a Waldorf resident and chairwoman of the Charles County Board of Education.
It is true that the local TV stations have a limited amount of time each day to deliver the news: generally a few hours in the morning, a few hours in the late afternoon and early evening and a half hour or an hour before bedtime.
Every day, TV newsrooms must decide which stories will affect the most viewers, and then assign reporters, producers and cameramen to cover those stories.
And these are broadcasters, after all. It's only natural they would gravitate toward stories in Washington's most populous jurisdictions, like Montgomery, Fairfax and the District.
Charles County's population in 2000 was 120,546, according to U.S. census data, compared with 873,341 residents in Montgomery County and more than 1 million in Fairfax.
But these numbers really tell the tale: 374,340 homes in Fairfax have TV sets, compared to 41,210 homes in Charles with a set, according to Nielsen Media Research.
"Mass media is mass media because it strives to reach the largest possible audiences," says Robert Long, vice president of news and operations for WRC-TV (Channel 4), which broadcasts most of Washington's highest-rated local newscasts.
Still, the sentiments expressed by Mrs. Levanduski and her neighbors raise important questions about the way TV stations cover their community especially when the community includes fast-growing outer suburbs like Charles County.
Make no mistake: the stations did a solid job covering the La Plata tornado and its aftermath. It was the kind of story television covers better than any media.
The images were dramatic: aerial footage of demolished buildings along La Plata's main street; survivors, interviewed from their hospital beds, their scarred faces seen in tight close-ups; amateur video of a deadly funnel cloud touching down near a highway.
The storm occurred on the first Sunday of the all-important May TV ratings sweep, when stations try to jack up ratings so they can raise advertising rates.
WJLA (Channel 7), WTTG (Channel 5), WUSA (Channel 9) and WRC all broke into network programming or ran crawls at the bottom of the screen to warn viewers about the storm.
Stations lose lots of advertising dollars when they interrupt or pre-empt regularly scheduled programming for breaking news, so these weren't easy decisions for local TV executives to make.
In the days after the tornado, the reporting got even better.
Last Wednesday, "Fox Morning News" on WTTG (Channel 5) devoted its "Neighborhood News" feature to La Plata. A lovely segment on the town's history was included, giving viewers a better understanding of the scope of the tragedy.
But would the stations have gone to La Plata in the first place if the tornado visuals weren't so stunning? After all, news happens every day in Southern Maryland and it isn't just church bake sales and supermarket ribbon cuttings.
In Charles County, officials are considering a proposed highway bypass of Waldorf, a project that has sparked a debate every bit as heated as Montgomery County's Intercounty Connector brouhaha.
Elsewhere, a Baltimore company that planned to build a $1.2 billion power plant in Waldorf recently put the project on hold, the result of hard times in the energy business. The postponement seriously jeopardizes a project expected to create 400 to 700 new jobs.
These are big stories in Southern Maryland, but none of the Washington TV stations have covered them. (To be fair, they were also largely ignored by the region's major daily newspapers, including this publication. The Times has published four stories on the bypass project, however.)
The local TV stations are making an effort to better cover the suburbs, but they concede it's an expensive thing to do.
This year, WUSA opened a Northern Virginia bureau, the first suburban news bureau for a local TV station.
WJLA, in the meantime, is planning to merge with NewsChannel 8, a 24-hour local cable news network. The union will create the largest local TV newsroom in Washington (it will have about 185 workers, or roughly 20 more than most big-city TV news operations), which should allow WJLA to fan out and cover more stories across the region.
Meanwhile, WRC last month became only the second station in town to get its own news helicopter. (WTTG is the other station with a chopper.)
Mr. Long says WRC got its helicopter for one reason: to cover the suburbs.
"It takes time to send a TV crew from your studio in Northwest Washington to the suburbs. One of the reasons we got the helicopter is it allows us to get out to these places a lot faster," he says.
Mrs. Levanduski believes the stations' efforts will pay off. Last week, she says the TV reporters who came to La Plata got to know her community a lot better.
"[The tornado] was a horrible thing to put us on the map, but it did do one thing: It showed the media that this is a real place, that we're real people," she says.

No mo' Mo'Nique
TV actress and comedienne Mo'Nique Imes-Jackson has departed WHUR (96.3 FM), where she co-hosted the station's morning show with John Monds and Sharon "T.C." Pitt.
Her last appearance was in mid-April.
Jim Watkins, general manager of the urban music station, would not discuss the details of Mrs. Imes-Jackson's departure, but he said it was amicable.
Mrs. Imes-Jackson, who also stars on the UPN television sitcom "The Parkers," lives in Tarzana, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb. She co-hosted the WHUR program from a studio near her home, but it required her to wake up at 2:30 a.m. Pacific time to be heard live in Washington.
In winter ratings released last month, Arbitron ranked WHUR No. 4 among Washington's 33 major commercial stations, up from a tie for seventh place one year earlier.

Channel Surfing is published every other Monday. Got a tip? Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send an e-mail to [email protected]

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